Stupendous! There are two DVDs in this collection containing nearly six hours of Earl Wild’s Liszt performances and there is an additional two hours of audio material. The recitals were given in 1986 at “Wynyard” a large country house in the Tees Valley in the North East of England that had belonged to the Ninth Marquess and before that to generations of the Marquesses of Londonderry. The house and grounds were sold the following year to Sir John Hall. The concerts marked the centenary of Liszt’s death.
Wild gave three recitals there before a select audience and each was captured in its entirety on a non-professional set-up. The sound and vision therefore are in no way to be considered up to contemporary standards. There is a single camera and it remains static for much of the time, which has its advantages, in its close focus on Wild. Inevitably dynamics don’t register with as much immediacy as one might hope, and there is a disclaimer regarding the treble voicings of the Steinway sent to the House from London. These facts having been duly noted let me advise confirmed Wildeans, and indeed Lisztians to ignore the foregoing – they shouldn’t consider it to be at all limiting – and to consider the opening word of this review ‘Stupendous!’
Wild’s playing throughout all three recitals – he plays without music of course – is cut from legendary cloth. He was then in his early seventies – at the time of writing he’s in his early nineties – but plays with astonishing accuracy, bravura and poetry. The hands are a complete blur, a positive Braque of colour, in the Second Ballade even though here, and throughout, his stance is still, concentrated and without any extraneous gestures (he has some scathing things to say in the audio segment about the “eyes to the heaven” merchants who populate concert halls). Jeux d’eau is wonderfully voiced, so rich and poetic, the Fantasia quasi Sonata gripping from the first bars, the Valse oubliée No.1 playful and skittish; as a treat we hear an encore of the Respighi Notturno.
The recital Liszt the Transcriber includes the transcription of Beethoven’s First Symphony – and dare one say that one listens to a piano work in Wild’s hands without the burning need to hear the orchestra? Maybe not, but nearly. Everything Wild touches turns to prismic gold; the touch is wonderful, the technique assured, equal to all torrential demands, and the conception – the mind animating the fingers – of stellar architectural understanding. The encore here, the Larghetto from the Second Chopin Concerto in Wild’s arrangement, is gorgeous. And so it goes, through the Virtuoso recital that rightly crowns the three with its tension inducing feats of brilliance. The sonata performance is, in my experience, pretty much second only to Horowitz’s. As with the etudes he essays, the results in this recital are simply transcendent. And how appropriate that Wild announces the Op.16 No.2 Scherzo by Liszt’s pupil d’Albert as an encore.
On BBC Television in 1974 with that urbane and charming man, the late Robin Ray, Wild elucidates his thoughts and performs the d’Albert scherzo, the Pertrach sonnet, Gnomenreigen, La Campanella and the Chopin Grande Polonaise in E flat. The other TV appearances find Wild in later years, though still as personable and amusing. He plays a little of his Marcello Oboe concerto slow movement transcription (not noted – hear it in its full glory on an Ivory Classics CD).
The audio component is full of sagacious and naughty nuggets. “Banging is for the bedroom” is one – current klaviertigers, please note. Lang Lang is “pure vaudeville.” He talks extensively about Toscanini and valuably so given his NBC connections. In the Mannes interview he’s on even wittier, bantering form. He talks about transposition – he has a thing about transposing Chopin into keys that work better for him – recording, and refers to the unfortunate Lang Lang once again, this time to call him “the J Lo of the Piano.” With John Amis back in 1986, the year of the “Wynyard” recitals, we get engaging vignettes and a real sense of conviviality and shared amusement between the two men. We get a Martinu story, some fun stuff concerning Suppe overtures and an impromptu improvisation in the style of Poulenc.
I will add a minor disappointment. Navigation is difficult. You can’t navigate between items and will have to fast forward within the recitals. That’s if you feel the need to do so. I think you’d be better off clearing the decks for the evening, stocking up with a bottle of single malt and, given Wild’s acts of Lisztian bravura, a mechanical device to keep your jaw from dislocating itself of its own volition.